Chances are, if you walk by a Middle School science class in session, you will see constructive chaos. Students will be in small groups, talking and moving with great excitement about their projects and experiments. We start with big, weighty questions: “What affects light?” “What determines the period of a pendulum?” “How are adaptations passed on?” “What do atoms really look like?” Teachers and students alike realize that if the question is not challenging, it probably is not worth studying. Thus, we have to embrace mistakes and even some colossal failures. There will be burning, explosion, confusion, melting, destruction… and most of it on purpose. We embrace
our initial disorder of ideas because here we can always find meaning.
At the end of the studies, we process the information with traditional worksheets and lab reports along with more modern means. Students may craft “infographic posters” to prepare with a peer group, create oral/digital presentations or master new demonstrations to perform
for the class. Additionally, there could be new challenges laid out to apply what has been learned to engineering tasks or practical, real-life test questions. As a result, our students often become teachers themselves.
An Academic Swiss Army Knife
A few examples can help illustrate our Swiss Army knife approach to sparking innovation. “Stream Watch” has satisfied fifth-grade STEM and physical activity needs for years. Our students monitor the physical, chemical and biological health of the Brandywine River over the course of the school year. This “place-based” education program leads children to understand their environment and the importance of stewardship. Together with parent volunteers, we collect data on temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and nitrate levels (from fertilizer run-off); survey terrestrial plants and animals; categorize and count aquatic macroinvertebrates; and collect trash. If we find evidence of pollution, we report to the Delaware Nature Society and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Control (DNREC). We jump into learning without getting too wet along the way!
The sixth-grade students recently explored an ethereal concept of hot and cold gases after tackling the tenacious world of solid and liquid density. We were able to determine the weight of air, and students asked, “How does a hot air balloon work?” To see how hot air balloons take flight, we gathered materials, constructed scaled-down balloons in groups, got the mass of the balloons and measured dimensions. Then, under close adult supervision, lit attached candles to see if the balloons took flight independently. They did. Students’ performance showed in an illustrated poster depicting all of the physical principles demonstrated in their lighter-than-air craft.
A seventh-grade chemistry unit included a tried-and-true investigation of white powders to determine the properties of a mystery compound at the end. We measured, observed, analyzed, reacted, evaporated and generally compared known substances to see their qualities. Like the lab coat-toting organic chemists on the other side of the Brandywine, we used our knowledge of “why and how” to determine that the mystery substance was a mixture of citric acid and baking soda. Knowing we could make this multisensory in all aspects, we mixed our reactants with orange flavoring, ate them and voilà, we made our own mouth-frothing “pop rocks.”
Eighth-graders love their phones. While we do not recommend that they roam the halls with them, falling into the sad state of other “screenagers,” teachers here know that phones are also incredible tools. Nobody believes that all objects accelerate at the same rate, regardless of mass. (“You mean to tell me that a bowling ball and a pea fall at the same rate?”) Using smart phones for video, an established 2-meter distance and any object of their choosing, students film a dropped object. We analyze the video, marking the falling acceleration of something like an emoticon pillow, and find that every student’s object falls at the same rate! Like a lot of things in Middle School science, you really would have to see it to believe it.
Ingenuity in the 21st Century
Who knows who these kids will become and what they will do with their skills? Our goal is to grow and enable collaboration, critical thinking, presentation, scientific modeling and comfort with technology to enhance creativity and communication. We see the students’ time here as an “apprenticeship” for all of the do-it-yourself work and analysis a young person will face beyond his or her K-12 school years. We are making an army of problem-solving MacGyvers, so look out world!